By on February 24, 2020

1988 Pontiac LeMans in Denver junkyard, RH front view - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsSince starting doing this goofy car-writing-online gig 13 years ago last month, I have documented the demise of 2,073 discarded vehicles in excruciating detail. During that time, I have walked right past thousands and thousands of allegedly interesting cars and trucks (sorry, BMW 3 Series fans, but I’ve been trying to make it up to you in recent years) in order to obsess over my very favorite kind of junkyard machines: littleknown examples of puzzling badge engineering. That means that when I see the South Korean Pontiac LeMans in a junkyard, I photograph it.

Here’s a low-mile, first-model-year LeMans sedan, found in a Denver car graveyard last spring.

1988 Pontiac LeMans in Denver junkyard, decklid badge - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe General sold the Daewoo-built Pontiac LeMans in North America for the 1988 through 1993 model years, though it was known as the Asüna SE or GT in Canada for the last part of that period. Prior to that, the LeMans name appeared on a series of rear-wheel-drive midsize Pontiacs from the 1961 through 1981 model years.

1988 Pontiac LeMans in Denver junkyard, LH rear view - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe Geo brand (which featured affordable, badge-engineered Isuzus, Suzukis, and Toyotas) might have made sense for this little South Korean car starting in 1989, but it stayed a Pontiac (or Asüna, or Passport) from start to finish. In fact, the Daewoo LeMans was sibling to the Opel Kadett E, so today’s Junkyard Find shares a blood relationship with dozens of car models around the world.

1988 Pontiac LeMans in Denver junkyard, speedometer - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThis one came to its final parking space with just barely over 100,000 total miles, and it seems fairly clean and rust-free for a then-31-year-old cheap econobox. As you might expect, any repair costing more than $99.99 serves as a death sentence for the 1988-1993 LeMans, since the depreciation curve for these cars flattened out at scrap levels somewhere around 1998.

1988 Pontiac LeMans in Denver junkyard, front seats - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe LeMans wasn’t fancy, but its cheap price tag ensured that quite a few 1988-1989 models made it out of dealerships. Today’s ’88 is the sixth Daewoo LeMans I’ve documented en route to The Crusher, after this ’88 hatch, this ’88 sedan, this ’88 hatch, this ’91 hatch, and this ’92 sedan.

1988 Pontiac LeMans in Denver junkyard, radio - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThis one came with the optional five-speed, auto-reverse cassette deck and even air conditioning, which must have pushed its purchase price well above the $7,925 MSRP (that’s about $17,570 in 2020 dollars). That year, the Toyota Tercel EZ went for a mere $5,948 and the Subaru Justy for only $5,695, but the LeMans was bigger and better-appointed than the poverty-spec versions of those cars. The $5,795 Hyundai Excel, horrid as it was, probably lured away more potential LeMans buyers than any other new car in 1988.

Because I use my influence as Chief Justice of the Lemons Supreme Court to try to induce 24 Hours of Lemons teams to make poor decisions about the cars they race, I have been pushing for a Daewoo LeMans in the series since the early days. Finally, a bunch of Pinto-racing Texans bought a 370k-mile ’89 LeMans AeroCoupe from a spectator at the 2018 Houston race, added badging for all 198 versions of the LeMans sold worldwide, and won Index of Effluency glory at the Colorado race last summer.

1988 Pontiac LeMans in Denver junkyard, transmission removal - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsBecause the Tommy Salami LeMans had the cheapskate four-speed manual, the team wanted a high-performance optional five-speed for added race domination. I found today’s Junkyard Find a few weeks after the race, and a couple of team members drove the seven hours each way from Amarillo in order to harvest its transmission and a bunch of other unobtainium LeMans bits. They sold the car along with the spare parts soon after, in order to make room for a couple of even worse racing ideas. You’ll hear about those later, but I’m sworn to secrecy for now.

The US-market advertising for this car emphasized its cheapness, period, so we’ll hear from a gratifyingly macho-voiced South Korean announcer bragging about the LeMans in its homeland.

If you want to see an additional 2000+ Junkyard Finds, head over to the Junkyard Home of the Murilee Martin Lifestyle Brand™ for links to all of them.

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57 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1988 Pontiac LeMans Sedan...”


  • avatar
    Lie2me

    Even the original Pontiac LeMans name had no basis in it’s grand namesake, but it made it’s own legends. By the time the “Pontiac LeMans” name made it to this thing it was a meaningless joke, I’m slightly surprised that Cadillac didn’t grab this little Daewoo as the next gen Cimarron

  • avatar
    paxman356

    I test drove one of these in 88 when I was looking for my first new car (as an 18 year old fool). Knowing the lineage of the vehicle, it was not as good as I had hoped. I wound up not buying a new car (a wise choice) but this would not have been it.

    I met a lovely Dutch woman, and in 2001, made my way to the Netherlands. I was surprised by how many Opels like this were still around. The Lemans was near extinct by that time. We got the crap end of the deal on that one.

    • 0 avatar
      conundrum

      Pretty sure that this sad Daewoo shared only body shape with an old Opel, and had a Daewoo developed/assembled Opel engine for that Korean touch. Daewoo also got to practice on the details like bushings and shocks, one-piece dash mouldings and second-rate seats. C/D panned the Le Mans at the time, I believe, for massive understeer and terrible handling. It was a horrible bag o’ cr*p and the word spread quickly around here, the Canadian Maritimes also known as Cheapskate Central, where Hyundai Ponys sold like hotcakes, yet pickup trucks are religion. This Daewoo was dunned and never made the grade. You just knew the people who drove one, and I often ended up behind one on a two-laner on my morning commute being driven very slowly and twitchily, had not the first clue about vehicles. Zilch.

      No doubt those old Opels were a sight better than this Daewoo, because the market in Germany for this car size was very competitive, so Opel couldn’t afford to make junk. That was the General’s doing — they knew North Americans didn’t have a clue and would buy something worse than an Excel so long as it merely moved and was sold out of a Pontiac dealership. Give them a real Opel? No, Buick dealers had already proved they could screw that up, so this thing was sold on price alone.

  • avatar
    Hummer

    I have never been able to figure out what people were thinking when they bought junk like this in the 80s. This was every bit as bad as the ecosport is today.

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      For some odd reason some people base their auto purchases on price alone. To them even a slightly used better car is not an option. They believe all used cars were someone else’s headache and that a new car no matter how horrible is the better choice

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      There were FAR worse choices out there, believe me.

      • 0 avatar
        Hummer

        Yea but when Toyota’s, Honda’s, Nissans all has great products, with years of used products available – and even then the D3 had SOME decent options, what persuaded customers to buy this?

        • 0 avatar
          Lie2me

          It was new and cheap and you know they had some great financing deals on top of it. We talk about the sub-prime car deals that often drive the market, this is a perfect example, 0 down, 0 interest, $199 a month for the rest of your life

        • 0 avatar
          FreedMike

          Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans were mechanically better, but at this price point, you would have to have settled for the base, hairshirt-trim level models (and back then, base meant base – vinyl seats, no air, etc). But at the same time, you had some REAL trashheaps, like the Yugo, Hyundai Excel, and VW Fox.

          This (and the Ford Festiva) wasn’t bad – I knew people who had them, and as long as you weren’t planning on keeping it for 200,000 miles, it was a good first car. But honestly…who the f**k wants to keep a base compact car for that long anyway?

    • 0 avatar
      dividebytube

      I used to wonder the same thing about the Yugo. People did buy them. And they were the type who said: “A new car for $3995? Sign me up!”

      I thought they were nuts even when I was a teenager driving my mom’s 1984 Nissan truck.

      • 0 avatar
        MRF 95 T-Bird

        I had a coworker back in the 80’s whose brother needed inexpensive wheels to get him around the Bronx and NYC metro area so he bought a new Yugo. It lasted for a while however problems did crop up so with the warranty and new at the time Lemon law after three malfunctions they gave him a new replacement which worked out well because it was more durable or a better day at the Zastiva plant in Serbia.He more than got his $3990 plus AC stereo tax and fees out of it.

    • 0 avatar
      TMA1

      Some people just weren’t ready to buy a foreign car brand in 1988, of course not realizing where this Pontiac really came from.

      As for the used cars of the era, those were peak Malaise. If you need to get to work, a new car with fuel injection will probably do much better for you than a 3-year old used car with a carb, or something even older that’s currently trying to rust into dust.

      • 0 avatar
        Hummer

        “ Some people just weren’t ready to buy a foreign car brand in 1988, of course not realizing where this Pontiac really came from.”

        I never understood this, my Grandfather was in the Philippines awaiting to embark to Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped. Yet he never had any trouble selling Japanese products(Kubota), buying them, or using them.

        Although the Japanese never fully admitted to wrong doing they were pretty much Americanized following their defeat and were no longer a threat.

        • 0 avatar
          Greg Hamilton

          Hummer,
          That last sentence would require an entire book to explore.

          • 0 avatar
            Hummer

            Oh I’m certainly well aware, even what I said could be argued with.

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            The evolution of the Japanese mentality towards us is fascinating.

            They started out before the war thinking Americans were racially and societally inferior, which goes a long way to explaining why they attacked Pearl Harbor – they figured we’d just roll over and play dead, and instead of attacking them back, we’d just go make more radios, or refrigerators.

            (Ironically, feelings of racial inferiority also caused the American side to blunder at Pearl Harbor – we thought they were too stupid to figure out how to make a torpedo operate in shallow water. If we’d taken them seriously, the attack would have been FAR less effective.)

            But after the war, Japanese society basically began to revere everything American. Because they thought of themselves as superior, they figured that anyone who beat them would have to be someone they could learn from. And they did.

          • 0 avatar
            SPPPP

            “…we thought they were too stupid to figure out how to make a torpedo operate in shallow water.”

            Ironically, *we* (USA) were the ones firing dud torpedoes for about 2 years of war. It must have been hard to take 60 men out in a floating coffin knowing you couldn’t trust your main weapon.

  • avatar
    gasser

    As a “car guy” in his 70s, I love these articles. I can remember so many of highlighted cars. I helped many a friend over the years, in purchasing, repairing or commiserating over these cars. Keep ‘em coming!

  • avatar
    Fleuger99

    I grew up in South Africa and there the Opel Kadett GSI was a hot hatch. I knew someone who had the car and it was a nice car in the mid 80’s. The South African models were manufactured in Germany which gave it some cred.

  • avatar
    pwrwrench

    “any repair costing $99.99” will be the end of a Le Mans.
    I have not been able to understand this. Even in the 90s $99.99 would barely be a lease deposit. So unless the Le Mans owner had some other money how are they going to get a car?
    Say the Le Mans needed a $200 repair and it’s otherwise just a drive-able car. Still can’t get a car for $200 unless your uncle, who quit driving years ago, gives you his car and you can get it going with some tires and a battery.
    Certainly if the Le Mans, or any other car, had seen a series of repairs that drained finances it could be time for it to go. Otherwise it would be better to think the situation through. Just as the suggestion that many spend money on a new car when they could get something much better for less on the used market.

    • 0 avatar
      Greg Hamilton

      Pwrwrench,
      I agree with you completely. However, we are in the minority. The argument goes something like this, “You fix $200 car up with a $200 dollar repair and you get T-boned,the insurance pays you $200 and you are out $200. So you lose.” That argument never made sense to me. What is you are T-boned on a motorcycle and you are dead? Where can the average person get a car for $200 anyway? (Not a Lemons racer.) If your car runs and you need basic transportation, drive it until the wheels fall (or its not safe to). Most people don’t think that way and that’s what keeps them in debt and the economy moving.

      • 0 avatar
        ClayT

        Count me in, too.
        If I spend a thousand fixing my twenty year old beater, that’s what… three car payments?
        I still have nine “car payments” left for the year, to put in my pocket.
        All those pocketed car payments allows me to buy another, nicer beater in a few years.
        If I wanted to.

  • avatar
    ttacgreg

    Wasn’t this Opel design and engineering?

  • avatar
    texasjack

    My GM company car for three months was a 2 door LeMans destined for my daughter. Off she went to college only to call me and tell me the brakes were so bad she was afraid to drive it anymore after rear ending another car. Bad brakes were affirmed by Pontiac after my complaint and up graded parts sent to local dealer. No help, still scary. Traded it in on another car and got a whopping $740.00 for it, the best offer from three different dealers.

  • avatar
    karonetwentyc

    OK, I have to admit to some confusion here.

    Growing up, these were all over the place as the Opel Kadett or occasionally the Vauxhall Astra if one had come in from the UK. They weren’t the most exciting of vehicles, but were generally fairly dependable, OK to drive, and basically did what they did in a competent if not-terribly-exciting manner.

    So why were they so hated in North America?

    I’ll admit to having never driven a Daewoo-built model, so have no idea if something in was lost in translation from Germany to North America by way of South Korea. But, at least in Europe, they were considered to be a reasonably decent car for what they were if not necessarily the most gripping thing on four wheels.

    Please help my innate attraction towards automotive underdogs to understand what went wrong here.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Some friends in H.S. had these. Miserable $#!+boxes by every metric.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    I was living in Michigan in this period, and these things were *everywhere*. I suspect 80% of them were purchased by GM employees as a first car for their kid. I suspect it was a $6k car with the GM employee discount.

    By ’95 they were all gone, sharing junkyard space with 1st-gen Hyundai Excels, no doubt.

  • avatar
    cprescott

    There are automotive-turds and then there are AUTOMOTIVE-TURDS – and this LeMONs was one of the worst products ever made – it was like the worthless Chevette’s soul was transplanted into a more modern version that was gutless and totally awful. I had a friend who had one of these and they were miserable pieces of junk.

  • avatar
    rpol35

    There should have been a conveyor belt to transport this turd directly from the showroom to the wrecking yard.

  • avatar
    pwrwrench

    greg hamilton,
    Yep, the ‘economy’ always needs a boost.
    In reply to our Euro writers who wonder why this thing was so disliked in the USA. One small example; A friend’s girlfriend had one of these Le Mans things. The right turn signal would not work properly. It would flash rapidly in the back, but not in front. It was driving her nuts. I reluctantly agreed to look at it.
    It appeared that the entire front of the car had been built around the turn signal bulb holders. I checked the owners manual. It stated to take it to the dealer as the bumper needed to be removed. After some work we found that by detaching the upper part of the plastic grille you could just reach down to remove the bulbs. After leaving considerable skin and blood on all the sharp edges.
    Oh yeah, great design with incandescent bulbs that have a short life. Oh, almost forgot, it had 2 bulbs both needed to be good otherwise rapid flashing.

  • avatar
    Superdessucke

    Timely to focus on this vehicle, given the intro of that little Korean-built Buick CUV thing that I believe history will prove to be analogous to this turd.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    Pretty sure Korean automobiles will never make a significant dent in the U.S. market.

    If Korean-produced vehicles were to be sold here, they would need an established, stable network of dealers such as Pontiac for sales and service.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    If a crappy vehicle is done just right, it convinces the buyer never to buy another vehicle from that manufacturer.

    If the crappy is overdone, it can turn the buyer away from the whole experience of owning and driving a vehicle – forever.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    The original Opel version of this car was ubiquitous in Europe for so long, and they didn’t seem like particularly fragile cars. Wonder what Daewoo cheapened to make our version so terrible?

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      Kind of like the Opel Omega which was rebadged as the Cadillac Catera. In Europe it was a solid reliable executive sedan. Here in the states less so. Lisa Catera?

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Another worthless oldie .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    Zoomers_StandingOnGenius_Shoulders

    JUNK. Absolute stinkin JUNK. Went well with other GM vehicles made at the time.

  • avatar
    gtem

    It’s funny these are so derided stateside, as they then went on to be made for the better part of two and a half decades at UZ-Daewoo as the Daewoo Nexia and sold across the ex-Soviet space, where they were generally well liked and stacked up favorably to Ladas in terms of performance and build quality, and were more or less at price parity. The last few years (08-’14ish) the cars got a final facelift inside and out. Kind of sad/awkward to see modern design cues on a 1980s platform. The interior packaging was well behind more modern “tall” compacts and the poor ground clearance with poor suspension travel was always a sore spot. The Renault Logan ate its lunch quickly once it arrived in the early 2000s as the import-at-a-Lada-price car of choice.

    Facelifted ’13:
    youtu.be/HaaCv12BTgU

    An older pre-restyle model:
    youtu.be/a3mgsl38FOg

    • 0 avatar
      Hummer

      Your man on the 2013 got 100% of his car review skills from SaabKyle.

      That car is crazy, it’s 80’s crapbox GM mixed with early 2000’s crapbox GM interior…. with projectors headlights… engine idle and that shifter clunk bring back memories of the worst from the 80s.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    There was a sport hatch version, the GSE which was sold in Europe as the Opel Kadett GSi. It had a larger motor similar to the 1.8L that was in the J-car Sunbird.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Strangely those seats look nice for such a miserable little crapbox.

  • avatar
    MrFixit1599

    I also test drove one of these right after test driving a Festiva circa 1991 or so. Barely in the Navy, about to get married, and needed a car. What a crap car. When a Festiva is worlds better quality than a LeMans, there is an issue. Ended up buying a used 1988 Escort for around 3 grand.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    This car is one reason there no longer is a Pontiac brand. GM really screwed the pooch.

  • avatar

    I actually got to drive the US version here and the Opel version on vacation. The Pontiac version was poorly built and worse suspended. The German build Opel was GTi-tight, and a way better drive – even with a 1.6 liter engine, and stable to top speed, about 110 or so.

  • avatar

    This car was popular in Russia and its client states in 1990s and 2000s a.k.a Daewoo Nexia. It was cheap. For the price of used German or Japanese car you could buy a new car made in Uzbekistan in plant built by Daewoo. After Daewoo was acquired by GM they changed name to Chevrolet. Face-lifted Nexia II was made until 2015. So that Lemans/Kadet had long and glorious life in post Soviet states.

  • avatar
    71charger_fan

    I lived in Islamabad from 2011 to 2015 and used to see lots of Daewoo-badged versions of these on the streets. What was funny to me is that they all had the Pontiac arrow-head badge on the grill.

  • avatar
    DweezilSFV

    “Pontiac: We Build Excitement”. “Pontiac IS Car”. And lest we forget the first ever G3…..

    One more of GM’s dumping ground brands with that “something to sell in the segment” corporate taint.

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